J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Month: July 2010

Two New Essays by Paul Graham

Having a good think.

Paul Graham has two new essays up, and both are must-reads.

The first essay, The Top Idea in Your Mind, points out that our minds tend to fully engage with only one idea at a time, and that it’s easy to fritter away our mental power by worrying about money or petty disputes.  “What you think about in the shower” may in fact be the most important thing in your life (in terms of problem solving and creative progress) and it’s important not to waste the power of our subconscious on mundane issues.

This overlaps with some of David Allen’s ideas — in Getting Things Done Allen states that the goal is to have a “mind like water.”  You don’t want to use up your mental processing power with remembering to buy laundry detergent, and to call so-and-so back; you want to save your brainpower for creativity and problem solving.

Graham’s second new essay, The Acceleration of Addictiveness, discusses how technological progress is a dual-edged sword; we continue to make things that we want, but at the same time we make things we want but don’t want to want (like cigarettes).  Since everything in modern life is so addictive (or at least alluring), a statistically “normal” modern lifestyle (enhanced by caffeine, alcohol, artificial light, processed foods, the internet, TV, video games, etc.) is not really normal or healthful in terms of our evolutionary biology.  In fact you may appear to be eccentric if you take steps to be truly healthy.

As someone who takes steps to reduce my exposure to artificial light, and who favors a paleolithic diet, I can relate to this.  Everyone in my life is quite tolerant (and in fact interested) in my lifestyle choices, but I still feel like an oddball at times.

Geneticist Spencer Wells has related thoughts on this topic — how every aspect of modernity is at odds with what is “normal” according to our genetic makeup (genetically we’re still paleolithic hominds, more or less).

Working Abroad Experiment Wrap-Up Part II — Financial Results

Spend money thataway!

We’ve been back from our Costa Rica “workation” for three weeks as of today.  It has taken that long for me to feel like life in Oakland (blessedly temperate with very few biting bugs, but much farther from the beach) is “normal.”

Hindsight continues to clarify the experience.  As beautiful as it was, and as friendly as everyone we met in the Puerto Viejo area was, I didn’t fall in love with Costa Rica.  It’s not really a matter of why or why not — it just didn’t click the way some other places I’ve visited have for me (Parma, in Italy, for example — or the north shore of Oahu).

You can’t predict what parts of the world you’ll fall in love with.  Hopefully your home is one of them.  To find the others … beyond randomly going places, I’m not sure how to go about it.  I don’t think a guide book can tell you.  Maybe the best way to improve your odds is to follow a lead … some picture or story or traditional food or factual detail or potential project that sparks your interest and that resonates emotionally.  If I gain more insight into that process, I’ll be sure to share it.

Still, I immensely enjoyed parts of the workation, and even the hard parts weren’t that bad.  I have zero regrets about the experiment, and we plan on going on similar adventures in different places (with a few tweaks to the game plan).

How Much Did It Cost?

One of the objectives of the experiment was to go on a longer trip without breaking the bank.  Until I sat down with a spreadsheet, I didn’t know how much damage our bank accounts had actually taken.  During the trip I was focused on making sure we had a enough cash for day-to-day needs; I wasn’t paying attention to the big financial picture at all.

Spent some money here (well-spent).

Gross expenses for the three of us (myself, Kia, and our toddler daughter) were $7033 for the entire six weeks.  The top four expense categories, from most to least expensive, were 1) flights, 2) rental houses, 3) eating out, and 4) groceries.  Those four categories came to about $6000, and the remaining grand was taken up by hotel, taxi, bicycles, bus tickets, laundry, ecotourism, gifts, childcare, clothing, exit fees, bank fees, and other expenses.

Of course, if we had stayed in Oakland, we’d have spent money in many of those categories over the same six week period.  Looking at average monthly expenditures in January through April of 2010, I calculated that we saved money in the following areas, comparing workation costs to “life in Oakland” costs.

  • Childcare: $2163 saved (we’re looking forward to public school)
  • Groceries: $1605 saved (see below)
  • Eating out: $495 saved (even though we ate out way more)
  • Gasoline and bridge tolls: $258 saved (we biked everywhere)
  • PG&E bill: $40 saved (our renter used less gas and electricity than we would have)

In addition to saving money in these categories, we had an additional $1100 in rental income from renting our place out.  That amount is below market in our area, but since we were renting to someone we knew and trusted (and found easily — no searching or interviewing required), it was a win-win situation.

During our workation I had income from music royalties, Loöq Records, and my database development freelance work.  Working conditions weren’t always ideal (lack of childcare and proper desk space), and I didn’t feel like working as often, so billable hours were down.  I calculated about $1700 in “lost” billable consulting fees for myself — work that probably would have gotten completed, delivered, and billed if I’d been at home.  That’s over the full six weeks.  Kia worked less as well, though I’m not sure what her numbers are (or if she wants to share them with the entire world).

Taking everything into consideration (gross expenses, money saved, additional income, changes in regular income), I calculated that the six week workation cost me $2357, or about $400 a week.  Slightly better tactics (renting one house instead of two, eating out less, and arranging better working conditions for ourselves) probably could have gotten that number down to about $300/week.

Depending on a number of factors, spending $2357 for six weeks in a different part of the world (during which you still need to complete and deliver a fair amount of work) might sound like a lot, or not very much.  To me it seems like a fairly good deal, though it wasn’t as inexpensive as I had hoped.

I think I’ve spent about that much (or a bit more) on many two-week vacations.  It’s an interesting comparison — two-week vacation vs. six-week workation.  The longer your trip, the more certain costs are amortized over longer chunks of time.  Flights you pay for just once (unless you hop around during your trip), and monthly rental costs are often almost the same as weekly rental costs (especially during low season).

The longer workation offered the experience of actually living somewhere else, and of completely breaking with (as opposed to just getting a break from) my daily routine.  I’m glad we did it, and I think, going forward, it will probably be our preferred choice over the whirlwind vacation.

Bank Fees and Credit Cards

It cost us $3-5 in ATM fees, plus about 3% of the actual withdrawal every time we withdrew cash.  I’m not sure which fees were Banco de Costa Rica and which ones where Chase, but they both got their share.  What a drag.  I wish there was a way around this (besides bringing massive amounts of cash into the country — no thanks).  Is there a way to use foreign ATM’s and avoid the fees?  If you know of one, please let me know.

Want a new dress? Cash preferred.

One bright spot was our CapitalOne Venture card — a new credit card we got just for this trip.  No foreign transaction fees at all, no annual fee (with our version — there’s also one with a fee and more rewards points), plus rewards points that can be used for travel or other stuff.  I wish we could have used the credit card in more places, but lots of places in Costa Rica only take cash, and many places (including hotels) that do take credit cards add a steep transaction fee.

A different credit card, one that I only used at only two restaurants at Costa Rica, ended up with some fraudulent charges on it, and had to be closed.  Chase took care of the problem with minimum hassle, but I’m glad I used a credit card instead of a debit card at those places (even though I’m not sure that the problem occurred at either restaurant).

On Groceries and Bicycles

Farmer’s market in Puerto Viejo

You may have noticed that we saved a lot of money on groceries — about $1600 over six weeks, or $267/week.  There are a number of reasons for these savings:

  1. We were eating out more.
  2. Food was less expensive.
  3. We were eating conventionally grown food instead of organic food.
  4. We were eating primarily local foods, and almost no imported foods (imported foods are an order-of-magnitude more expensive in Costa Rica).
  5. We generally drank beer instead of wine.
  6. Everything we bought, we had to carry home on our bicycles.

The last point is the most interesting.  We bought (and therefore ate) less food, simply because it was difficult to lug it around.  It made us think twice about our regular style of shopping at home — making gigantic trips to the grocery store and filling up the whole trunk of the car.  We also lost less food to spoilage (despite a flaky refrigerator).  It was more of a European village style of shopping: figure out what you want to eat that day, then walk or bike to the market and buy it.  Less efficient, but also fresher and less expensive.  We’re trying to emulate the same model now that we’re home, and so far the results are good — less money spent on food with no drop in quality (and nobody is going hungry).

How I Cured My Asthma With One Simple Lifestyle Change

After years of suffering from adult-onset asthma, I promised myself that if I ever found a way to cure myself, I would share that information with the world.  In a way, it’s the reason I started this blog.  It’s taken me until now to write this post because it’s a difficult subject to write about.

Vinyl shower curtains — attractive but deadly.

I started to experience asthma symptoms on a daily basis in 2001, at the age of 32.  The symptoms (chest tightness, and the annoying feeling that when you take a deep breath it doesn’t “catch” — like you’re not actually getting the air) started immediately after we replaced our cloth shower curtain with a plastic one.  It took me awhile to make the connection, but the toxic PVC fumes released by the hot steam were causing my breathing problems (or at least aggravating an underlying condition to the point where I experienced symptoms).  It probably didn’t help that our house was also full of mold; the upstairs neighbors had flooded their bathroom, the water had dripped down into our kitchen, and our property manager refused to repair the damage (we were renting at the time).  Moldy ceiling tiles — yuck!

We got rid of the offending shower curtain, but my asthma symptoms persisted.  The degree of severity would fluctuate — sometimes I would feel almost normal, other times my breathing was so bad that it was difficult to sleep.

At times I felt helpless and depressed.  Would I ever breathe normally?  At other times I felt determined — I would figure out a way to improve my health and quality of life.

A Little History

My grandma smoked, and she lived to be 102, blah blah blah …

I grew up in the 70’s, and, like most kids of the 70’s, inhaled my fair share of second-hand smoke.  Now we know that’s a risk factor for asthma.  I forgive my parents and their friends — they knew smoking wasn’t good for them but they had no idea they were hurting the kids.  (The equivalent challenge for my generation, as parents, is to not expose your family to bisphenol-A, which is everywhere).

Once I thought about it, I realized I had experienced asthma symptoms as a teenager, at times.  I had always had a misconception that people with asthma couldn’t take a deep breath; since I could fill my lungs completely, I didn’t think I had asthma.  But the symptoms — chest tightness and that feeling that your lungs aren’t full (even when they are) — were there, even when I was in high school.  But they were intermittent, only lasting a few days at most.

I went to college at UC Davis.  The air in Yolo county is filled with dust and pollen, and I experienced bad hay fever throughout my college years.  No asthma, but lots of sneezing.  It was also during this time, having moved out of my family home, that I realized I was allergic to cats.  I had grown up with cats as pets my entire life.  I had also spent a great deal of time sneezing, and with watery eyes.  Go figure.

What I Tried — SUPPLEMENTS

Starting in 2001 (when I started experiencing asthma symptoms every day) I experimented with a large number of supplements.  Most had no effect on my asthma symptoms.  Some made my symptoms worse.  A few helped to some extent.  Supplements are not the “cure” I’m referring to in the post title, but some are worth mentioning anyway.

Vitamins — some are good, some are evil.

Multivitamins — Multi-vitamin/mineral supplements tended to aggravate my symptoms, and I haven’t been able to figure out why (too many ingredients, and too many brands to do any kind of controlled experiment).  It could have something to do with the complex synergies that exist among different vitamins and minerals — too much of one ingredient might prevent absorption of another ingredient that is helpful to asthma.  Or maybe one of the ingredients in multi-vitamins catalyzes one of the many possible inflammatory chain reactions that are possible in the human body.  I don’t think it’s an allergic reaction to a filler or a coating, as I’ve tried out many high quality and hypoallergenic brands, all with the same adverse effect.  I suspect one or more of the B vitamins is to blame, since high-potency doses of B-complex also have an adverse effect on my breathing.

Vitamin C — There’s a great deal of research that supports the use of Vitamin C as a treatment of asthma, especially against exercise-induced asthma.  My own experience was that vitamin C provided some relief, and did help reduce asthma symptoms.  It wasn’t a cure, but it helped.  For me, positive benefits seemed to top out at about 500mg/day.

Vitamin B6 — Some research has been conducted on the effect of vitamin B6 supplements on asthma, with mixed results.  My own experience was also mixed; sometimes taking B6 seemed to help, other times not.  B6 may help prevent the overproduction of histamine, and may be more effective at controlling allergies than asthma.

Magnesium — Magnesium helps keep smooth muscle fibers (the kind in your lungs) relaxed.  I’ve noticed a beneficial effect on my breathing from taking magnesium.  Magnesium citrate is a better bet than magnesium oxide — too much of the latter can make you run to the bathroom.  If you want to try taking magnesium, start with a 200mg dose (or less, and work your way up to see how much you can tolerate).  There has been a great deal of research concerning magnesium and asthma.

Evening primrose oil — This oil supplies a fatty acid (GLA) which can have a positive anti-inflammatory effect.  It’s a traditional treatment for asthma in some cultures.  Supporting clinical evidence is weak, but I’ve noticed a beneficial effect from a 1000mg dose.

Bromelain — This is an enzyme extracted from pineapple.  It has a strong anti-inflammatory effect that lasts a few hours.  I found that putting half a pill (250mg) under my tongue (to more quickly absorb the enzyme into my bloodstream) would make me breathe easier within half an hour.  At least one mouse study has found bromelain to be effective against asthma.  On the other hand, if I take too much bromelain, it makes my heart race.

Note on bromelain: A few years ago there was an “asthma cure” going around the internet that recommended megadoses of Blue Bonnet Super Quercetin.  I don’t think quercetin does a thing for asthma, but in my experience bromelain is effective, and that particular formulation contains bromelain.

Fish oil — Keeping a favorable dietary Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acid ratio is extremely important in managing inflammatory conditions.  I’ll go into more detail later, but I recommend fish oil for pretty much everyone (not just to people with asthma, but also to improve heart health and to prevent depression and seasonal affective disorder).  To avoid fish burps, keep fish oil in the refrigerator, and take it with food.  I generally take about 4g of fish oil and/or cod liver oil (in winter) daily, in capsule form.  Here is a summary of research regarding fish oil and asthma.

Raw garlic — In my experience, eating raw garlic is effective against asthma.  Unfortunately, raw garlic comes with its own side effect — garlic breath and even garlic body odor if you eat too much.  To minimize garlic breath, you can chop up a small clove (or half a large clove) into small pieces, swish those pieces around in a small amount of water, and then swallow the whole thing quickly.

Some supplements I found to be effective against allergies (like black seed, nettle, and MSM), but not helpful in controlling asthma symptoms.

What I Tried — DRUGS

I’ve always been wary of using powerful drugs to treat illness — too many side effects and not enough research.  However I quickly grew desperate enough to get over my drug hang-ups and try them all.  Here’s a brief summary of my experience with using drugs to treat asthma.

The classic asthma accessory.

Albuterol Albuterol is one of the most commonly used asthma drugs, and works by relaxing smooth muscle in the lungs, thus easing bronchospasm (airway constriction).  For me, albuterol provided zero relief, and did nothing to improve my PEF.  This was a strong indication that the underlying cause of my symptoms was primarily airway inflammation (more so than airway constriction).  This made sense to me — I had never ended up in the ER with acute breathing problems (many of my friends with asthma have).  My symptoms were less severe, but more chronic.

Steroids (glucocorticoids) — I tried several brands of steroid inhalers, and found that they provided quick, lasting relief.  I remember distinctly at one point taking a normal breath, feeling it “catch,” and experiencing a powerful combined sense of emotional relief, and outright joy.  I would be able to breathe normally again!

I would have been willing to tolerate some of the side effects of glucocorticoid use (weight gain, reduced immunity, muscle weakness, weakened bones), but there was one side-effect I could not tolerate.  Each time I tried inhaled steroids, I would start experiencing severe mood swings within a few days.  One time I even felt suicidal — the first time I had ever experienced that feeling in my life.  Glucocorticoids lower both plasma and brain serotonin levels, and are linked to depression and feelings of aggression.  My violent mood swings stopped as soon as I stopped using them.  Back to the drawing board.

Leukotriene Inhibitors — Leukotrienes are fatty molecules that play a role in immune function and inflammation.  I found the effect of taking a leukotriene inhibitor to be intensely drying (an anti-histamine effect), but not helpful to my asthma symptoms.  This class of drugs is probably more effective for allergic rhinitis (the other condition it is prescribed for).  A very effective, but cheaper (and probably better for you) alternative that does more or less the same thing is black seed (black cumin).  Black seed is very effective against both seasonal allergies and coughs — according to this site black seed oil contains chemicals which inhibit leukotriene synthesis.

Tianeptinetianeptine (Stablon) is an antidepressant drug that works via increasing serotonin uptake (the opposite action of antidepressents like Prozac, which inhibit serotonin reuptake; SSRI = selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor).  Tianeptine has long been known to decrease asthma symptoms; the drug reduces plasma serotonin (high plasma serotonin can induce bronchoconstriction).

I didn’t try tianeptine until I was fairly desperate.  I ordered some from a mail-order company of dubious legality.  I took some, starting with one pill a day, and found that it worked.  Not as well as steroids — but better than most of the supplements I had tried.

There were a few problems with tianeptine; after a few days of taking it I would notice a drop in energy, and well as wonky moods (ups and downs unrelated to my life circumstances).  It’s a powerful drug.  If you’re severely depressed and asthmatic, I would definitely recommend it over any SSRI (for one thing, tianeptine has no sexual side effects).  But for less severe cases of both conditions, there are safer, simpler modes of treatment (keep reading).

What I Tried — DIETARY RESTRICTIONS

I tried modifying my diet to see if it improved my asthma symptoms.  At various times I tried eliminating dairy products, all caffeine, red meat, wheat, red wine, all alcohol, nuts, and a number of other foods and categories of food.  Some of these food trials seemed to work; I would often go days without symptoms.

I kept trying to find the one food that was causing my symptoms.  I ordered an expensive ELISA blood test to try and discover which “hidden food allergies” I might have (I didn’t have any obvious ones — like going into anaphylactic shock if I ate peanuts).  I was surprised that the test showed I was allergic to … no foods at all.  A mild sensitivity to honey (which I rarely ate), and otherwise nothing.

Still, I felt that modifying my diet was somehow the key to managing my symptoms, and that instinct eventually proved to be correct.

What I Tried — OTHER STUFF

Avoiding environmental allergens — I went to an allergist and was tested for various allergies.  I showed strong sensitivities to a wide range of flower, weed and tree pollens.  I was also found to be highly allergic to dust mites.

I bought dust-mite proof covers for my mattress and pillows.  Those did help — with allergies.  I stopped sneezing every morning.  But it didn’t help with asthma.

I found that when I traveled, my asthma symptoms would often disappear.  The pollens I had grown up and become sensitized to weren’t present in other environments.  But I loved living in the Bay Area.  I didn’t want to move.  Air quality is better in San Francisco than in Oakland (mostly because of SF’s proximity to the ocean, and wind), but I didn’t want to move to San Francisco — too much traffic and not enough sun and open space.

In 2002 we did move out of the mold house — we bought a great house in Oakland.  My symptoms improved somewhat, but still persisted.

Buteyko method — the Buteyko method is a breathing technique that can help relieve asthma symptoms.  It works — but it’s extremely difficult!  The basic idea is to slow your breathing and boost the CO2 levels in your bloodstream.  This has the effect of opening up your airways, decreasing both bronchoconstriction and inflammation.  Eventually, you can train yourself to permanently slow your breathing and control asthma symptoms.

I don’t buy the Buteyko method premise that all asthmatics “chronically overbreathe.”  From my limited experience with scuba diving, I learned that I breathe less, or more slowly, than average, yet I still experienced asthma symptoms.  However the techniques are still useful, and can probably prevent a trip to the ER for someone experiencing an acute asthma attack.

Panacea?

The Water Curethis simple, free method (drink way more water, avoid all caffeine, and include some sea salt in your diet) has no doubt worked for some people.  Some of the premises have been found to be bunk (like the idea that all caffeinated beverages — even very weak green tea — are dehydrating), but I think there’s something to the idea that chronic dehydration is closely linked to bronchoconstriction.  Since my asthma symptoms were more related to airway inflammation, rather than constriction, the water cure didn’t do much for me (except make me piss a lot).

Other Observations

Two interesting observations.

  1. Whenever I had a cold, my asthma symptoms would disappear entirely.  Of course, I would be sneezing, congested, and miserable, but no breathing troubles!  This was a clue that the disease was closely linked with immune function.  Perhaps when my immune system was occupied with a real threat (a cold virus), it would ignoring the environmental allergens that would trigger my asthma symptoms.
  2. The same thing was true if I had hay fever.  If I was experiencing allergy symptoms (sneezing, runny nose, watery itchy eyes, etc.) my breathing would be fine.  At the same time I found that drugs or supplements that inhibited histamine would sometimes make my breathing worse.  I realize that many people experience asthma and allergies together.  While I have experienced both conditions, they’ve never occurred at the same time.

I can’t adequately explain either observation, but I wanted to share them nonetheless.

What Worked

I tried most of the above methods between 2001 and 2003.  By 2004, I was reducing my symptoms to some extent with a regular intake of fish oil, evening primrose oil, vitamin C, and magnesium.  Taking fish oil daily was a major turning point — it really helped keep my airway inflammation in check.  I think my Omega-3/Omega-6 fatty acid ratio was severely skewed towards Omega-6 (just as it is in most people in the U.S., including vegetarians and vegans).  The additional Omega-3’s (EPA/DHA) in fish oil helped correct this problem.

I noticed another consistent improvement in my symptoms when I reduced the amount of wheat I was eating.  I sharply reduced the amount of  bread, pasta, pizza, pastries, and even whole-wheat products I was consuming.  My breathing improved, and within a few months I lost about ten pounds of fat and retained water weight.

Solution: eat real food.

In 2006 I began to experiment with going “all the way” with the so-called “paleolithic diet.”  For the most part, I cut out all grains, legumes, cow’s milk, and processed foods.  Instead of having “pile o’ starch” as the basis of every meal, I began to eat animal protein (seafood, poultry, eggs, and meat), fresh fruit, and non-starchy vegetables, with generous amounts of olive oil, butter, and nuts.  I also started to eat grass-fed/pastured meat and butter (much higher in anti-inflammatory Omega-3’s than grain-fed animal products), and to supplement with 5K IU of vitamin D on most days (especially during the winter).

The effects of this dietary experiments were dramatic.  My asthma symptoms virtually disappeared, and I lost an additional ten pounds of fat and retained water.

Why Does It Work?

I think there are at least five reasons why the paleolithic diet is effective against asthma:

  1. The diet improves the Omega-3/Omega-6 ratio, which is effective against inflammatory conditions.
  2. The diet is high in vitamin D.  Vitamin D levels are inversely correlated with asthma symptoms.
  3. The diet is low in lectins, gluten, and casein a1, all of which which are associated with “leaky gut syndrome.”  Whole, undigested proteins (as opposed to amino acids) directly entering your bloodstream via your intestines can trick your immune system into attacking its own tissues (resulting in chronic inflammation).
  4. The diet is relatively low in carbohydrates, which helps keep plasma serotonin levels from getting too high (which can trigger bronchoconstriction).
  5. The diet is very high in phytonutrients, many of which have anti-inflammatory effects.

Asthma is primarily an allergic disease — the immune system reacts with inflammation and airway constriction to factors in the environment (pollen, bacteria, viruses, molds, proteins) that it has become sensitized to.  The paleo diet has the effect of making the immune system less “twitchy” — less prone to autoimmunity and inflammation.

Is It Hard To Eat That Way?

I don’t find it difficult, but I’m not that strict.  I follow Mark Sisson’s “primal” version of the paleolithic diet, which allows dark chocolate, coffee, tea, and some wine and beer.  I also eat some dairy products, but I try to stick to the “a2” casein varieties of dairy (milk and cheese from goats, sheep, and Guernsey cows).  Legumes (beans, peas, and peanuts) aren’t included in the paleo diet, but the lectins can be mostly soaked and cooked out, and they’re packed with antioxidants and other nutrients.  I stay away from soy  (which can mess with hormones) and red kidney beans (packed with toxic lectins), but I sometimes eat green beans, peas, pinto beans, and peanuts.

When I eat out at restaurants, I’ll order protein and vegetables instead of pasta, but if the bread is good I’ll eat a piece.  I have less of a sweet tooth than I did in my starch-binging days, but I still have one — so I eat ice cream or pie once in awhile.

Even with fairly frequent “cheats,” I now breathe easy, and I’ve kept off the extra twenty pounds.

I do need to be careful not to eat too many foods that are naturally high in serotonin, such as plums, bananas, avocados, kiwi, tomatoes and a few others.  These foods can’t raise your brain serotonin, but they can boost your plasma (blood) serotonin, thus possibly triggering bronchoconstriction and asthma symptoms.

I still take supplements — both for general health and to make sure I stay free of breathing problems.  Most important are fish oil (to keep the Omega-3/Omega-6 fatty acid balance tilted towards Omega-3), and magnesium (which has a host of other benefits, like preventing noise-related hearing loss).

What Does “Cure” Mean?

You might object to my use of the word “cure.”  Have you really cured a disease if it can come back at any time?  If you have Type-2 diabetes, and you “cure” the disease by sharply reducing your dietary glycemic load (eating less sugar and starch), and exercising regularly, is it really cured?

Take cancer, for example.  Our bodies are constantly producing cancer cells, but our immune systems generally keep them in check.  We never totally rid our bodies of cancer cells, or bacteria, or viruses, or inflammation, or any of the other factors that cause disease.

You can “cure” scurvy with vitamin C, but the scurvy will come back if you stop ingesting vitamin C for long enough.  You can “cure” a bacterial infection with antibiotics, but those bacteria still lurk in the environment (or on your skin, or in your intestines) and can reinfect you at any time.

I used “cured” in the post title, but I could have also used “healed,” or “completely manage my symptoms.”  I’m still vulnerable to asthma if I eat large amounts of the wrong foods, or inhale gigantic amounts of certain pollens.  But on the whole, I feel like I’ve cured the disease in myself.

If you (or a loved one) have experienced asthma symptoms, I feel for you, and I hope you find this post to be useful.  Even if a modified paleolithic diet doesn’t work for you (or you don’t want to try it), don’t give up.  Keep trying things — don’t settle for an inferior quality of life.  If you find the right combination of factors, the body is capable of healing itself.

Angles of Estrangement

Jondi & Spesh -- Angles of Estrangement (Loöq Records)

I’ve been writing and publishing electronic music — mostly dance tracks — since around 1991 (the heyday of rave).  In those early years I released a few tracks on my own as “DJ JD”, but the music quality took a jump a few years later when I met and started collaborating with Spesh.  As part of the Trip ‘n Spin Recordings collective/dance label, we released a series of polka-dotted house music vinyl 12″ singles as Jondi & Spesh.

Discovered by John Digweed in an East Bay record store.

One of our releases, “We Are Connected,” caught the attention of a world famous (yet still up-and-coming) UK DJ named John Digweed.  We learned that our odd track somehow fit into a new category of music called “progressive house.”  Fine with us.  The track was included on Digweed’s Bedrock compilation, and became something of a hit.

JSJ - Ghosts of You (Renaissance)

Spesh and I did our best to capture the momentum, and wrote and released a large number of dance tracks through the early 2000’s.  We collaborated with Jerry Bonham on a project called “JSJ” that produced two wildly successful releases on Renaissance Recordings.  We started our own record label (Loöq Records) and released a full-length album — also called We Are Connected — that did pretty well (especially in San Francisco).  At the same time, we were running a weekly in San Francisco called Qoöl that for a long time was wildly popular — lines around the block and so forth.  For several years running we were voted into Nitevibe’s Top 10 San Francisco DJ list.  Fun times!

Too strange?

Around 2004 our music careers came to something of a fork.  We released an album on Spundae Records called The Answer.  It got some good reviews, but never really took off.  I’m still proud of that album, but it veered away from the known dance music genres, and some people didn’t know what to make of it (maybe the incredibly weird cover art had something to do with that).  Spesh and I toured the U.S. (supported by Spundae), and then did a self-organized tour in Europe that was both fun and exhausting.  I knew for myself at that point that I didn’t want to pursue the possibility of becoming an international superstar DJ (even though we had a pretty good start!).  It just wasn’t for me.

Spesh continued to pursue his own DJ career, and together we continued to promote Qoöl and run Loöq Records.  For a time, producing as Jondi & Spesh fell by the wayside.  I was burning studio time on my other music project — Momu — and Spesh was spending hours and hours listening to tracks and making mixes.  In addition to all the music stuff, we’re also both married guys, and work other gigs for money (I do database/programming work, and Spesh is a freelance advertising producer).

Excuses?  No way!  We were just taking a breather until we figured out what we wanted to do next.  After almost twenty years of producing dance music, we were both ready to try something different.  The “different” turned out to be a complete change of direction — we started experimenting in the studio with some ambient tracks.  Using parts from previously produced tracks, we deconstructed and reconstructed our way into an entirely new album.

The result is “Angles of Estrangement,” out today on iTunes, amazon.com, Beatport, and everywhere else.  For now it’s a digital only release, though we might follow up with a CD release (and I wouldn’t rule out vinyl if it does well).

The music came together quickly and easily — it was a blast to produce.  That said, we were extremely meticulous in the mixdown phase, working to get the feel of each track just right.  We made every single track on the album seamlessly loopable; each one starts exactly where it begins.  The original idea was that the music could be used to accompany art installations.  From the (rather dramatic) press blurb:

This album is comprised of previously published material that has been radically altered. Certain rules were applied to the re-composition process. For each of the “songs” in this collection, elements of soft and loud were deliberately used in search of contrasts designed to provoke the listener. There is little or no percussion. Each composition contains a dramatic arc, and within that arc, an event. Each piece begins exactly where it ends, and thus can be played in an endless loop.

Individual interpretations guide the listener.

Uses for these compositions stretch beyond the simple delivery of sensation or emotion. They are also meant to accompany life’s occurrences as alternate soundtracks to common events or carefully constructed realities such as films or other works of art.

Let us know what you think about the project.  It’s a new direction for us — a real break from the pounding four-on-the-floor stuff we’ve been doing for years.  I’d love to know what you think.

Oh yeah … you can download the 14 page digital booklet right here.  Enjoy!

ANGLES OF ESTRANGEMENT — SOME FULL-LENGTH PREVIEWS:

Second Sky

Back Alive

Underneath It All

Big Air

Gone for Days

I Drank It

BUY ALBUM ON:  iTunes | Amazon | Beatport

Also available on Juno, eMusic, and your favorite digital outlet.

30-Day Luck Experiment — RESULTS

Richard Wiseman, aka Dr. Luck.

During the month of June I conducted a 30-day experiment; I tried to “be more lucky.” I based my experiment on the research of Richard Wiseman, who has studied lucky people (and what makes them lucky) for a number of years.  Wiseman discovered that lucky people tend to have the following qualities:

  • They are skilled at creating and noticing chance opportunities.
  • They make lucky decisions by listening to their intuition.
  • They create self-fulfilling prophesies via positive expectations.
  • They adopt a resilient attitude that transforms bad luck into good.

Based on these findings, I created and resolved to practice five customized exercises everyday for the month of June.  I’ll discuss my experience of each exercise in turn.

Exercise #1: Discuss and tweet favorite three experiences of the day (focus on the positive)

Discussing the “Top 3” with Kia and Tesla Rose was an easy and fun thing to do in the evening.  Sometimes it was surprising which experiences made the list.  For example, one evening we were walking in the evening on a beach trail, in near-total darkness (it gets dark very early in Costa Rica) when we began to hear scurrying and rustling on either side of the narrow trail.  The noise intensified; soon we were threading our way through a surround-sound mosh pit of horror movie sound effects.  The experience was harrowing, but it made Kia’s Top 3 list for that day.  She has written about the experience here.

Simple activities, like playing in the surf at the beach, often made the list.  So did experiences with nature … hearing or seeing howler monkeys, for example (we were on a working vacation in Costa Rica for the entire month of June).

Early in the month I tweeted the top 3 experiences of each day, but this started to feel obnoxious, and I abandoned that part of the exercise.  People don’t necessarily want to read about how precious your day was.  Nobody complained, but I ultimately decided it wasn’t the kind of thing I want to tweet about.  I would rather share interesting links or facts … provide value of some sort.

Did it make me luckier?

This exercise certainly made me feel luckier.  It’s an effective method.  Even though the exercise was very focused — picking out three discrete experiences — the overall effect was to make me consider the big picture.  Here I was in Costa Rica, with my loving family, in good health, and so on … so yeah, it made me feel like a lucky man.

The grapevine is an important source of information.

 

Exercise #2: Talk to everyone — strike up a conversation at every opportunity (expand opportunity)

This was the hardest exercise!  I’m not naturally a chatty person, and I had to overcome extreme reticence in order to make myself strike up random conversations with strangers.  My limited Spanish contributed to the problem.

I ended up compromising; I struck up conversations with people who I perceived to be interesting in some way.  Also, if needed information (directions, when a store opened, etc.), or help, I made myself ask someone nearby.  Asking for directions or help comes quite easily to some people, but for me it’s challenging.  A combination of 1) pride, and 2) not wanting to impose usually conspire to make me to tough it out alone.  Could be a guy thing.

Interestingly, sometimes this exercise contradicted Exercise #3 (“follow your gut feeling”).  Sometimes my gut instinct directed me not to talk to somebody — to avoid engagement.  In those cases I always went with my gut instinct … definitely the easier choice.

Did it make me luckier?

Somewhat.  I just wasn’t that good at this one.  It was good to overcome my reticence about asking for directions or help, and that proved helpful in several situations.  One afternoon I asked a random construction worker if he could spray some WD-40 on my crusty bike lock, and I bought him an ice-cream cone for his trouble (he was working right next to CariBeans).  I also had some short, interesting conversations with a few random people.

Kia is quite good at talking to strangers.  She actively sought out people with young children (Tesla Rose had a dearth of playmates during most of our trip), and cornered The Dellingers one morning at the beach.  Tesla Rose had a great time playing with the Dellinger girls (Eli and Annika) for the remainder of our trip, and meeting them definitely enhanced our experience.  A stroke of luck, you could say.

Exercise#3: Consciously consult “gut feeling” at all significant choice points (follow intuition)

The intuitive path.

This one was easy to do, and felt effective.  Significant parts of our brains are processing information at a tremendous rate before our conscious minds are aware of the data; the calculations are subconscious (as Malcolm Gladwell discusses in Blink).  While intuition is inferior to cold, conscious calculation in some situations (evaluating financial securities, for example), it’s a perfectly adequate way to navigate a Costa Rican workation.

Whenever I had a moment of doubt or confusion regarding the ever-present question “what to do next,” I consulted my gut instinct.  What felt like the right course of action?

Did it make me luckier?

I think it did, but it’s hard to prove.  The evidence is invisible; bad things that didn’t happen.  We stayed out of trouble, avoided crime, didn’t get (badly) injured, etc.  Is this a good beach to hang out at?  Correct choice = fun times, no sunburn, and not being mugged.

Perhaps the main benefit of “trusting your gut” is that it provides a way to move forward in life, with confidence, and without excessive, time-consuming analysis.  Unfortunately there is no way to do a controlled experiment; once a choice has been made you can’t go back in life and try things the other way.

Another benefit of following one’s intuition: it provides an easy way to maximize the return on the expenditure of limited personal resources (such as time, money, willpower).  If you find yourself with a spare ten minutes, what’s the best way to use it?  Send an email?  Relax and stare at the trees?  Read, or read a book to your kid?  If you had to consciously calculate what the best way to use that time would be, the decision-making process itself would probably take you ten minut
es.

Exercise #4: When something “bad” happens, consider possible upsides, and refuse to be demoralized (resilience)

There’s always an upside.

This exercise was moderately difficult, but extremely effective.  When I was feeling down, for whatever reason (usually mosquito bites, or Tesla Rose throwing plates on the ground, or having internet connectivity problems), it wasn’t always easy to find “the bright side.”  Usually the “opportunity” in the situation was to change my own perspective or behavior.  Mosquitoes?  Part of the Costa Rican equation — avoid as much as possible, but don’t focus too much on the bugs or the bites.  Two-year-old acting out?  What’s going on with her psychologically?  What’s she feeling, and what are her motivations?  Internet problems?  Find something else to do.

Did it make me luckier?

Our biggest piece of “bad luck” was renting a house that wasn’t an ideal fit for our family.  This exercise helped give us the fortitude to do something about the situation; we moved from the jungle to a beach house.  There was a financial hit, but not a huge one.  We found ourselves much happier closer to the beach — the double rental cost was well worth it.

Following this exercise made me realize the absurdity in the “I’m having a bad day” attitude.  You can always turn it around.  You can always use your imagination to find a course of action that will improve your situation.  To paraphrase Lt. Gen. Harold Moore: if plan B doesn’t work, go through the entire alphabet.

Exercise #5: Observe and record (journal) at least three anomalous details every day (expand opportunity)

I failed miserably at this exercise.  Part of the problem is that I created too many exercises for myself — I couldn’t keep them all in my mind at once.  The other part of problem is that my natural observation skills are dismal; this one was just too much to bite off.  I basically gave up after a few days.  This would probably be a good 30-day experiment on its own.  I’ve read accounts of people dramatically improving their powers of observation; I believe it’s possible.  But it was too much for this time around.

Did it make me luckier?

N/A — I didn’t do the exercise.

Conclusion

Maybe I’ll actually buy Wiseman’s book and see what “make yourself luckier” experiments he proscribes.  I wanted to start with making up my own exercises, but I think mine might have been too ambitious.  Three out of the five I created for myself really worked for me — the other two more or less flopped.

The three exercises that I was able to practice did all seem to have a positive effect.  They made me happier, if not luckier.  There’s a reason those two qualities are often paired, as in “happy-go-lucky.”  Focusing on the positive leads to both luck and happiness.

Focusing on the positive doesn’t mean that you ignore problems, or that you have any less awareness of evil, injustice, wrong-doing, bad feelings, or bad situations.  It simply means that you focus on what is good in your own life, and build on that.

I’ve never had a victim mentality; at least in adulthood I’ve always seen myself as responsible for my own fate.  But these exercises had the effect of moving the personal responsibility dial from 8 to 10.  What “luck” I would like to have befall me — it’s just a matter of doing the work, meeting people who can help me out, and cultivating an indomitable spirit.  There’s nothing magical or mystical involved (though the subconscious is heavily involved, and one’s path through life is ultimately unpredictable, which can make it feel mystical).

Lucky Events

Catch some falling coin.

June did contain a couple “extra lucky” events.  One night I went out to dinner, and by the time I returned a lucrative Loöq Records music licensing deal had been offered, negotiated, and closed by the time I returned.  That same evening I received an email notifying me that there were some uncollected music royalties in my name — would I like them to be collected?  Why yes, I would — thank you!

On a less tangible note, June was filled with creative inspiration.  Ideas (mostly for stories, blog posts, music) sometimes came faster than I could write them down.  I attribute this mostly to being in a different environment, with a high degree of novelty.

What About “The Power of Intention”?

I completely believe that we have the power to “manifest” our desires (or preferences, as I prefer to call them) by imagining them.  That is, as long as we’re willing to do the tangible work in the world that brings us to that reality.  Bringing something into reality always starts with imagination (or visualization, if you prefer), but it must be followed up by action, by work.

But what if I’m wrong?

What if all you really have to do is imagine what you want, to completely believe that reality will manifest, and then, well … kind of sit around and wait for it?

Back in April, Steve Pavlina put up an interesting post.  He suggested that if you don’t believe in the power of intention, you can put a “tracer” on your intention so that you’ll be able to distinguish an intentional manifestation from coincidence.  One example he gives is manifesting $100, somehow related to a lime.  Yes, the fruit.  The more random of a tracer, the better.

Are you my lucky lizard?

What’s the opportunity cost of trying something like that?  Zero, I thought — I’m going to manifest $15,000, somehow related to a lizard.  Kia hates it when I try kooky stuff like that that doesn’t align with my beliefs about reality, but I don’t see what the harm is.  We all know that some of our beliefs must be wrong — we just don’t know which ones.  So since early April, I’ve been “trying” to manifest $15,000, somehow related to a lizard, by believing it will happen.  That’s all I’m doing.  I’m not starting any lizard businesses, or writing songs with lizard names.

When I receive my $15K, somehow related to a lizard, I’ll be sure to let you know.

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